Myth of the 84 Bloggers ‘Hitlist’ in Bangladesh: Busting the Media Narrative -By Mohammad Hossain
A series of murders in Bangladesh termed the ‘atheist blogger’ killings has received substantial coverage from news agencies the world over. A narrative has quickly taken shape, which can be termed as the ‘good freedom loving atheist bloggers vs bad Islamist terrorist’ storyline. Though initially a localized phenomenon, the narrative has gradually morphed into a rallying point for atheist supportive voices worldwide. One of the cornerstones fuelling this contrived narrative is a certain ‘Hitlist of 84 bloggers’ alleged to be the blueprint for the execution of the bloggers by ‘Islamists’.
Researching into claims behind this supposed ‘hitlist’ yields interesting results, and allows a more complex picture to emerge beyond the simplistic ‘islamist terrorism’ narrative. As a starting point, however, it is important to get an idea of how widespread and significant this ‘hitlist’ has become.
Initially made popular by the atheist bloggers themselves, the ‘list of 84 bloggers’ has become the prima facie explanation adopted by analysts to throw light on the events leading to the deaths of the bloggers. According to an article in the Guardian, ”The list [of 84 bloggers] was submitted to Bangladesh’s interior ministry in 2013 by a group of radical Islamists asking for the writers to be punished for making derogatory statements about Islam and the prophet Muhammad.” An opinion piece on Al Jazeera says,”In 2013, a list of 84 atheists, freethinkers, anti-Jamaatis and secular bloggers had been widely circulated; this was the hit list drawn up by Islamic fundamentalist groups.” The opinion piece points to an earlier article on the Indian Express written after the death of Avijit Roy, in which a similar claim is made about a list of 84 bloggers by an “Ansarullah Bangla Team”, sans any credible source. The BBC, not to be left behind, makes a similar claim. There is evidently, much uncertainty on the source of such a list, or even the names included and whether all of those bloggers killed till now were on this list. Although the BBC article claims that all the four killed, from Avijit to Niloy, belong to this list; the Indian Express article claimed that 8 had been killed “from” the “hit” list of original 84 drawn up by “Ansarullah Bengali Team”. Compounding the confusion, some from the bloggers’ supporters, such as Ganajagoron Moncho convener Imran H Sarker, have even questioned the existence of such a list.
Despite the confusion, the strength of the argument based on this‘list’ is such that, in the absence of any other evidence implicating a perpetrator other than rhetorical accusations, it remains the lone link binding anything and everything with the ‘Islamist terrorist’ label. Indeed, the ‘list’ seems to be one of the most important links, for those wanting to prove the complicity of extremist outfits such as Ansarullah Bangla or Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), or large apolitical religious organizations such as the Hefazat-e-Islam. There have even been a few media attempts to link Jamaat-e-Islami to the killings, although quite ironically, the Jamaat’s very survival depends on its rather strenuous attempts, during the tenure of the current government, to reiterate its adherence to democracy, the rule of law and non-militancy. Indeed the Jamaat-e-Islam’s defense against the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been an extensive legal exercise, through the hiring of rather costly international law and PR firms. Whether the Jamaat would jeopardize all its efforts to preserve its credibility and democratic image, by secretly hitting out at a set of low-profile and rather unpopular bloggers, seems doubtful.
On March 31st 2013, a delegation led by Mohammad Mahbubul Alam, convener of the Anjumaan-e-Bayyinaat and editor of Daily Al-Ihsan, submitted a list of 84 ‘atheist’ bloggers to a committee of the Prime Minister’s Office and asked the government to investigate them, and requested for the government itself to make a case against the bloggers. Mainuddin Khandaker, Home Ministry’s Additional Secretary and also the committee chief, echoed the views of the scholars, requesting that any evidence should be sent to a specified email address, and the police for proper investigation. Corroborated by a report (a translation can be found here) on the Al-Ihsan website, it is evident that the list of the 84 bloggers was the work of Mohammad Mahbubul Alam, the convener of the relatively unknown Anjumaan-e-Bayyinaat.
Importantly, the Al-Ihsan statement, which is the only source for the 84 blogger list, does not even call for the blogger’s arrest let alone mention any violent measures to be taken. Significantly, for all the fingers pointed at pro-opposition Islamist groups, the Anjumaan-e-Bayyinaat is affiliated with the Ulama League, which is actually an affiliate organization of the present ruling party in Bangladesh, the Awami League! It played a role in providing support to the government against the Hefazat-e-Islam demonstrations back in 2013, and was among the few Islamic organizations to do so. Its convener Alam, who presented the list to the government, said that the Hefazat march in 2013, was a communist march and that the Hefazat chief Shafi was acting un-Islamically like Mao Zedong.
Despite a prevalent media narrative implicating the Hefazat-e-Islam, which led a large demonstration against the bloggers back in 2013, to have been involved with the so called ‘hit list of 84 bloggers’, no evidence has been found to support this. In fact, due to the pressure of these media allegations, the Hefazat chief recently issued a statement that Hefazat had never provided the home ministry with any list of bloggers, and that nobody affiliated with the Hefazat had attended the meeting between Anjumaan-e-Bayyinaat and government officials.
Though it may be a hard fact to swallow for many, the much oft touted ‘hit list’ of 84 bloggers was actually a list of blogger names consisting mostly of online pennames and pseudonyms such as Paapi007, ‘Lighthouse’, ‘Looker’ and appears to be a list cobbled together by scrolling down a few atheist-minded blogsites, and is not even in any way, a comprehensive list of all such ‘atheistic’ writers. Interestingly, even though the recent BBC report states that the names of the five bloggers who have been killed so far were all named on this ‘hit list’, two of the ‘names’ Oyasiqur and Neel Chowdhury do not actually appear on the list at all. Indeed the compilers of the list, who supposedly were the masterminds behind the killings, were inaccurate enough to name the blogger Rajib Haider ‘Thaba baba’ in the list of those who should be investigated, despite the fact that ‘Thaba baba’ had actually already been murdered on 15 February 2013 whilst this list was presented at the end of March.
So, is this a ‘hit’ list, or was it as is clearly stated by Al Ihsan website, a request for the government to investigate and possibly bring a case against the bloggers? An organization that asks for the law to take its course is hardly an outfit propagating terrorism, as has been repeatedly portrayed in the media. One is left to wonder, if this rather odd hotchpotch list of pseudonyms alongside some real names, could really be the masterplan for the murders? If that is the case,why have the police not found any connections with the original authors of the list yet? Furthermore, given the plethora of pseudonyms evident in the list, how could the murderers have discovered the real names, identities, addresses and exact whereabouts of the bloggers, without having access to government web and intelligence records?
Beyond the ‘hitlist’: unprecedented violence and lethal infighting within the ruling bloc
Rights organization, Odhikar has listed over 200 people killed and over 26, 000 injured since 1999 through infighting within the ruling party, the Awami League. Cases of violent infighting, criminal activities, extortion, attacks on minority Hindu and Buddhist communities – all perpetrated by ruling party leaders and members, litter the newspapers every day. Indeed, a top Awami League leader, who hails from a Hindu background, was moved to add his voice to a Hindu community association’s accusation that Awami League ministers are involved in land grabbing the property of religious minorities. Most ordinary Bangladeshis are slightly bemused that Islamists are seen as the culprits, when their day to day experience is very much otherwise. To gain a glimpse of the extent to which the ruling party engages in extortion, within the past few days, a report of the Awami League youth section injuring 40 school children, and hospitalizing 22 children, in an attempt to extort money from parents would be a good place to begin.
Interestingly, there is a belief swirling amongst the drinkers in the country’s teashops, that it is in fact Awami League extortionists who are targeting the bloggers; since there is an overall narrative which portrays the bloggers as possible targets, the bloggers would as a result be susceptible to blackmail and threats. This is not farfetched – the police force and Awami League affiliates have cashed in on the drive to arrests and harass opposition members. The police do a roaring trade in arbitrary arrests filling prisons to over double capacity, and actually torture and maim prisoners (AHRC has reported on the practice of shooting prisoner limbs while in custody) who can then only obtain relief or release through the payment of bribes. If the teashop drinkers are right, then it would be a tragic case of a self-fulfilling narrative, where Awami League affiliated stalwarts have invested in increasing the state of fear, albeit under an Islamist guise. Sadly, it would be the likes of media and press toeing the government line, of which there are many (in light of closure of several media outlets such as Diganta TV and Amardesh, which the government has labeled as being tuned with the ‘opposition’), which constantly drum up the Islamist extremist threat in Bangladesh, albeit for the benefit of a western neoliberal audience, who would unwittingly be their partners in crime.